Rural policy “does not sit well” within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs because its overriding focus is on the environment and agriculture, a House of Lords select committee has concluded.
The report published by peers today said the department should be stripped of its responsibility for rural communities, which should be handed instead to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The call was made in a report by the Lords committee dedicated to reviewing the legacy of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006, which made a series of provisions to protect the interests of rural areas that the Lords said had been “hollowed out” in the past 12 years.
This has resulted in rural policy being “almost exclusively handled” by Defra, which lacks the resources to deal with it and has a “mistaken impression” of what rural affairs actually are, the report argued. Brexit – which has given Defra one of the biggest to-do lists in government – will only make matters worse, it added.
The 2006 NERC Act established the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC), which was replaced in 2013 by a unit within Defra that has now also been abolished.
NERC also transferred responsibility over some of the functions of the Countryside Agency – which was abolished under the Act – to Regional Development Agencies, which have also since been scrapped.
The report concluded that the demise of these bodies has diminished the understanding within government of rural society and rural economies, with the loss of the CRC’s independent research capacity highlighted as a particular concern.
During its inquiry the committee was told that Defra has 64 staff in rural teams, 25 of them in the Defra rural policy team, five in planning and housing, and 34 working on the Rural Development Programme for England.
It heard that Defra is “consumed with agriculture and environmental policy and… had never really taken to the rural affairs element of its remit”.
The report criticised the department’s “unfortunately mistaken” impression of rural affairs, often taken to mean “farming and land management”. This is too limited, it added, given that the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors accounted for just 7.5% of rural employment in 2016/17.
The Lords called for responsibility of rural affairs to switch to MHCLG, which it noted had assumed this responsibility in the past through its predecessor departments.
“This change would ensure that responsibility for rural communities sits within the central government department that is responsible for communities as a whole as, indeed, it did prior to the creation of Defra,” they said.
Defra also currently has a role in so-called 'rural-proofing' across Whitehall – ensuring that other departments take account of the impact on rural communities when designing new policies.
The committee recommended that this role be reassigned to the Cabinet Office, “within a single purpose unit with the necessary resources and experience required to exert influence on all departments”.
But a government spokesperson responding to the report said Defra works hard to rural-proof policies across government, and had updated its guidance for departments in March 2017.
Committee chair Lord Cameron of Dillington said it was clear from departmental decisions and policies that Whitehall policymakers lack an understanding of the needs of rural communities.
He added: “Each and every government department should be required to think about the ways in which their policies affect rural people, and the government must take action to ensure that this 'rural-proofing' of policy happens.”
Cameron, a crossbench peer, also highlighted evidence of the ongoing decline of biodiversity, species and habitats.
He said Natural England, another body created under the NERC Act to promote conservation, has seen its status “diluted and weakened over recent years, so that it now struggles to perform all of its key functions”.
Another key recommendation of the report was for Natural England to be “funded to a level commensurate with the delivery of its full range of statutory duties and responsibilities”.
On Natural England, the government spokesperson said there has been “absolutely no change in [its] statutory role or driving mission”.
They added: “Whether it is developing a new agricultural system outside the EU or safeguarding our countryside, the needs of our rural communities sit at the heart of everything we do.
“We are continuing to champion rural affairs across government – driving forward high-speed broadband in the most hard to reach areas, increasing housing availability and supporting the creation of more than 6,000 jobs through our dedicated fund for rural businesses.”
The government will set out a formal response to the Lords report in due course.